Springsteen chronicles part 2: "American Skin (41 Shots)"

“We need some quiet.” 

Springsteen at Madison Square Garden, about 20 bars into his as-yet-unrecorded political ballad, “American Skin.” Written as a seething response to the NYPD’s accidental shooting (41 times) of Amadou Diallo, an African man they confused with another dark-skinned man who had been up to ill-deeds in Queens. Diallo was reaching for his wallet, as requested, to let the cops know who he was. But when they saw a mysterious black thing in his hand, they thought GUN, and went for theirs, and drilled him on the spot. Forty-one times. Automatic weapons are like that.

Springsteen ran through all the typical responses — outrage, grief, finger-pointing — before reaching the heart of the matter. That the tragedy affects the shooters as much as their victim. In the first verse, even, he projects himself into the boots of the gun powder-stained cops: “You’re kneeling above him in the vestibule/praying for his life.” And from there, into the chorus: “Is it a gun?/Is it a knife?/Is it a wallet?/This is your life.”

The killing is bad enough. But what it represents — disconnection between the races, between classes, between law enforcement and the people they’re sworn to protect and defend — is an even bigger tragedy. “You can get killed just for livin’/In your American Skin.”

All of which swam back into my mind this morning when I read this NYT story about New Jersey governor candidate Chris Christie. A huge Springsteen fan. And a conservative Republican. Which seems odd to me.

Follow the jump for more. . .

Let’s think again about that moment in 2000 when Springsteen debuted “American Skin (41 Shots)”. I was living in New York then, it was a particularly brutal and ugly moment. The head of the NYPD police union called Springsteen “a dirtbag” and, better yet, “a floating fag.” John Tierney, then a conservative/libertarian columnst for the NY Times, ridiculed Springsteen for focusing on the number of shots that killed Diallo (“He is firmly on record against the extra bullets”) and accused the musician of ignoring the plight of working class cops. . . though of course that is the opposite of what Springsteen had done (“you’re kneeling above him in the vestibule/praying for his life. . . “)

I don’t know anything about Tierney, but in this instance: What an asshole. He seems to have deliberately ignored/misconstrued the most significant aspects of Springsteen’s song — while accusing his antagonist of doing the same to the NYPD — in order to ridicule him. Give Tierney credit, I suppose, for being ahead of his time: It would take other conservative mouthpieces years to figure out that you don’t really have to deal with the complexities of the world if you simply ridicule your opponents (Socialist! Nazi! Fascist! Etc!)

But anyone with a functioning connection between their ears and brain has to understand clearly that Springsteen, among virtually all modern American musicians, is a serious left-winger. He’s a Steinbeck/Guthriel/Depression-era progressive. A working man’s artist with tragedy in his eyes and social justice on his brain. Always has been, though he’s become much more vocal about the specifics in recent years.

So how does a supply-side, laissez-faire conservative like Christie go to show after show, pumping his fist in the air as his hero contradicts everything he believes, really loudly? I have no idea. Do power chords trump policy? Does a handful of party songs outdo a litany of serious, often subversive political statements?

Is anyone thinking clearly? Besides Springsteen, I mean?

I saw Springsteen at Madison Square Garden about five days after Tierney’s piece ran, right in the middle of the ruckus. Ended up in the top deck, sitting just above a foursome from, I’m guessing, Staten Island. The women with frosted hair. The guys with prominent guts. Struck me as off-duty law-enforcement. Or possibly construction workers. People who were helmets to work. Anyway, there was some light-hearted grumbling before the show about his “fuckin’ politics,” then a lot of dancing and singing to the less challenging (or too poetic to parse) songs. Then Springsteen got to “Born in the USA,” which he was performing that summer as a raw, slide-guitar blues. No kick-ass beat, no seeming heroics. Just a lot of dead-end towns, dogs that have been beat too much, etc. And when he got to the chorus, the “Born in the USA!” chant, the one guttiest guy put his chubby hand up to his mouth and shouted back:

“And if you don’t like it you can fuckin’ leave!” 

What he didn’t understand is that Springsteen’s dismay is fueled not by contempt – the contempt shown him by the NYPD, by Giuliani, and Tierney — but by his love of this place, this people, and the dream of life that holds us together.

“We’re baptised in these waters/And in each other’s blood…”

Where was Tierney then? Where was Christie?

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